Is there anybody who's more of a Chicago Bear than Mike Ditka?
Once you get past George Halas himself, there's nobody even close. Ditka is Da Coach, and before he was Da Coach, he was one of the best tight ends who ever played the game.
I loved Mike Ditka the player, and I loved Mike Ditka as a coach. And as far as being on the radio with him, I loved that, too.
But while having him on the air was good for Mike North and The Score, it was also good for Mike Ditka. I don't know that he ever acknowledged that. I have nothing but respect for Ditka, but that doesn't mean he didn't do a few things that really upset me, and I talked about them on the air.
After the 2006 season, it bothered me that the Bears were going into the NFC Championship Game against the Saints, the other team he had coached, and he never came out and said who he was backing. It was obvious that his ties to Chicago were a lot stronger than his relationship with New Orleans, so who was he kidding by not coming out and rooting for the Bears?
I was always on Ditka's side when he was coaching the Bears, even when things weren't going well for him in that last season. That was 1992, the first year The Score (WSCR-AM) was on the air. I backed him until the end, and I think he was appreciative of that. The Bears were awful that season (5–11, tied for third in the NFC Central), and all the talk was about when Ditka would be fired, who would replace him and how the team would react to a new coach. I had said all along that season that the Bears had better think long and hard about replacing Ditka. And if they did fire him, they couldn't come in with somebody who didn't at least come close to him in personality.
Well, leave it to Mike McCaskey to follow Mike Ditka with Dave Wannstedt. All the experts thought Wannstedt was this defensive genius for the Cowboys who would follow in Jimmy Johnson's footsteps and become this great coach. He was a disaster who couldn't carry Ditka's cigar case. Wannstedt didn't know what he was doing, and I guess that's what made him McCaskey's boy.
Before Ditka became George Halas' choice to coach the Bears – the last decision Halas made for the team before he died in 1983 – he was a great player for the Bears. To me, he was one of the best tight ends who ever played in the NFL. He was a great blocker who would knock everybody down in front of him, and he had great hands. The guy is in the Hall of Fame, for crying out loud.
There have been other good tight ends, but when Ditka came along, he was the first one to be used as a pass receiver as well as a blocker on an almost equal basis. He was simply an unstoppable player once he caught the ball. Unlike a lot of players that you see nowadays, Ditka would not go down to the ground or run out of bounds. If you wanted to stop Ditka after he caught a pass, you had to tackle him. Usually it took two or three guys to stick him good if you wanted to tackle him.
That's one of the main reasons I liked Ditka so much. You can say that he demanded a lot of his players and that he was tough on them, but he never asked for more than he gave himself. And he gave it to the same franchise that he played for and made his name. Ditka didn't have to be such a hard-ass or such a tough guy, but that's what came naturally for him. He was being true to himself, and he was the right guy to coach the team when Halas brought him on board.
You have to remember where the Bears were before Ditka got there. They had been coached by Neill Armstrong for the previous four seasons – not exactly an inspirational guy. Armstrong may have been a nice guy, but I'm not sure how much the players listened to him. They were a losing team in their last two years under Armstrong, so it was obvious that they needed somebody with fire and passion. That's why Halas was willing to put past differences with Ditka aside and bring him back to the team.
For one, Ditka had the same philosophy as Halas on how to build a team. At the time, the passing game was really becoming popular. Ditka had seen for himself how damaging the passing game could be because he was an assistant coach for Tom Landry and the Cowboys, and they had just been beaten by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game on Dwight Clark's memorable catch in the back of the end zone.
Ditka still thought that if you put together a team that could punish and pummel the opponent, you could win a game.
He pretty much said the same thing when Halas called him up, brought him to Chicago and interviewed him about the possibility of becoming head coach of the Bears. Halas asked Ditka what his philosophy was about being a head coach in the NFL, and Ditka told him he didn't have a philosophy.
Instead, he told Halas that he was not going to throw the football all over the lot and that he didn't believe in doing that. Instead, he wanted to bring a nasty, tough team on the field and simply kick ass.
It was a simple answer, and it was the same kind of philosophy that Halas had when he was coaching the Bears and one that he believed in until the very end. That made the match between coach and owner a perfect one.
But Ditka knew that his attitude and personality were not a match for everyone in Halas Hall. Not all of the Bears' front office people agreed with Halas that the philosophy of pounding your opponent was going to win in the NFL. It didn't matter when Halas was alive and still the man that Ditka had to answer to, but once Halas died in 1983, Ditka had to deal with quite a bit of friction from the owner's box.
As he was molding his team in 1982 and 1983, Ditka was putting together a team of punishing, hard-hitting guys who were willing to run through a wall for him. By the time the 1984 season started, Bears fans knew that Ditka was on the right track with his team.
There were a few games that season that let us know for sure that the Bears were on their way. There was a home game against Minnesota when the Bears absolutely murdered the Vikings. The score was only 16–7, but the defense basically kicked Minnesota quarterback Tommy Kramer all over the field. The Bears had 11 sacks that game, and you knew they were something special.
A week later, the Raiders came to Chicago. The Raiders were basically the bullies of the NFL. They had beaten the Redskins in the Super Bowl, and they were supposed to be tough. The Bears beat them 17–6 and also beat them up. Jim McMahon lacerated his kidney that game, which ended up costing them, but it marked the changing of the guard in the NFL. The Bears were real, and everybody knew it.
The team proved it by going down to Washington and beating the Redskins in the playoffs, but they took it on the chin against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. It was a game that would stick with Ditka and the Bears for a long time. There were reasons for the loss, including McMahon's injury, but Ditka couldn't stomach the idea of losing to Bill Walsh.
After the game, Walsh handed out a couple of back-handed compliments to the Bears, saying they would be the team to beat once they got their offense squared away and McMahon came back. Ditka knew there was something pretty smug about Walsh, even if he truly was a great coach. In the locker room after the game, Ditka told the team how much he believed in them and that they would take care of the 49ers next year.
That loss burned inside of Ditka throughout the whole offseason. He was particularly livid that they used offensive guard Guy McIntyre as a lead blocker from the fullback position. Ditka couldn't wait for the 1985 season to start, and he couldn't wait to take on the 49ers.
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This excerpt has been printed with the permission of Triumph Books. To get your own copy of Settling the Score, visit TriumphBooks.com.
From the Magazine: Settling the Score
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